Staff at special schools in Northern Ireland, which are remaining open during the current Covid-19 lockdown, are living in fear after it emerged pupils who have a relative at home who have tested positive for the virus are still able to attend.
Stormont’s Education Committee was hearing evidence from teaching unions on the state of education during the Covid lockdown on Wednesday morning.
The committee was told that staff at one special school are “absolutely distressed” after learning of a case where the pupil is still attending.
Justin McCamphill of the NASUWT informed the committee that Public Health Agency guidance allows for a child whose parent has tested positive for Covid to attend school after ten days of no symptoms, even if another family member tests positive.
“This is extremely stressful for staff,” said Mr McCamphill. “As a union we are calling on the PHA to publish their scientific evidence which says this is safe.
“Two metre social distancing is near enough impossible to manage in these school environments. Staff are working under immense pressure.
“This is having a big impact on mental health and wellbeing.”
The Irish government has abandoned its timetable to reopen schools for primary pupils with special needs later this week after unions rejected the plans, while schools in Northern Ireland remain open, though one school, Fleming Fulton in Belfast, has moved to a two day week for pupils.
Caroline McCarthy of the Irish National Teacher’s Organisation told the committee that “teachers are battered at the minute beyond belief, exhausted, frightened, desperate to help, desperate to step-up.
“The Department of Education and the Education Authority have no idea of the mitigation that is required to keep them safe,” she said.
“Parents are concerned about the health and well being of pupils and sometimes the family as a whole.
“There is limited, if any action coming out of meetings the department is having with school leadership and the unions.”
Justin McCamphill added that all teachers and education staff should be prioritised to receive the Covid-19 vaccinations.
“Teachers are doing their best to deliver the curriculum online, but that is never going to replace face-to-face teaching,” he said.
“We believe it is right and proper that teachers in special schools are treated in the same way as those who work within health and social care as they are putting themselves at high risk for the greater good and to ensure vulnerable young people have respite.”
There was universal acknowledgement that teaching staff should be prioritised for vaccination.
Scott Naismith, principal at Methodist College Belfast told the committee: “Like everyone else, we look forward to public health guidance being able to confirm that it’s safe for pupils, staff and the community for schools to reopen.
“That should only happen when it’s absolutely safe to do so.
“We are supporting the calls for education staff, all education staff in schools to be prioritised for vaccinations as soon as possible,” said Mr Naismith.
Sinn Féin’s Karen Mullan said she it was “absolutely beyond acceptable” that there is not a confirmed plan for the vaccination of all school staff.
DUP committee member Robin Newton said: “The committee fully agrees with the body on the issue of vaccinations for those involved in the teaching profession at all levels” and that they should be should be included in the priority list.”
The committee also addressed the issue of transfer tests, though both examining bodies, AQE and PPTC declined invitations to attend.
Daniel McCrossan MLA and Justin McCamphill from NASUWT both accused the bodies of ‘avoiding responsibility’.
Mr McCrossan asked the witnesses how they see “the fairest way” to carry out post-primary transfer.
Jacquie White of the Ulster teachers’ Union said that in order to make it fair, schools should “take a step back, to revisit their criteria and to leave that to the side and revisit it at a later date.
“It’s highly regrettable that ideological differences stood in the way of actually focusing in for a resolution for the children,” she said.
“Primary school principals are being left in a very, very difficult position. They are fielding many questions from parents that they can’t answer as they have no clarity.
“Schools hold informative data and data that enables them to move forward with their teaching. Different schools use different tests, but due to the pandemic, some schools won’t have been able to hold tests.
“This data is not comparable and not reliable in this context.”
Justin McCamphill added that “the problem is we’re dealing with a system that’s not fair to begin with”.
With schools still scheduled to re-open on February 15, attention was also turned on how they can do so safely.
Mark Langhammer from the National Education Union referred to a number of Covid-19 related studies and says “there is a clear link with closing schools and controlling the virus”.
“We think, first of all, that there must be and should be fewer people in schools, in particular, we think class sizes should be significantly lower,” he told the committee.
“We should be looking at 1 to 12 teacher to pupil ratio, something like that.”
The NEU representative also called for better enforcement of social distancing and a review of social bubbles.
Ulster Unionist MLA Robbie Butler added: “I think that the Minister needs to invoke his coronavirus powers to do something solution-focused here and take the responsibility off teachers and schools.”
The Lagan Valley MLA said more information from the unions on the issue of school restarts and the use “of alternative venues” was needed.
Justin McCamphill from NASUWT replied “that was the original plan from 19 June, however the minster decided towards the end of August that schools would come back on a full return.
“The approach of having more space could have been done,” said Mr McCamphill.
“Getting extra building space would not have been an issue, but additional staffing would have cost money and resources.”
Committee chair Chris Lyttle said “schools need extra staff, extra space, extra cleaning, blended learning capacity, contact tracing capacity and that requires extra resource funding and extra capital funding.”
Methody principal Scott Naismith said a return to school would require additional qualified staff at additional cost.
“Schools have been underfunded “for over a decade,” he said.
Sinn Féin’s Nicola Brogan added her support to calls for teachers and school staff to be prioritised for vaccination, as well as staff in childcare facilities.
She also said she has now written to the Education Minister about access to remote learning devices for children.
Jackie Bartley from St Genevieve’s High School replied that “there is a vast inequality in relation to the amount of access that some pupils do have for that access to education online.
“Our C2K system is 20 years old now and it really needs to be look at whether it is fit for purpose.”